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From U.S. Admirers, Tears, Prayers and Remembrances

Mourners Outside British Embassy in D.C./AP Mourners outside the British Embassy in D.C.(AP)
By Stephen C. Fehr and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 1, 1997; Page A01

Among the dozens of bouquets of flowers cascading down the steps of the British Embassy in Northwest Washington yesterday was a simple bud vase containing three red roses. The handwritten message left on it spoke for a city -- no, a nation -- in mourning.

"Diana -- you'll always be queen of America's hearts."

Across the Washington area yesterday, thousands of broken-hearted admirers of the Princess of Wales paid tribute to her in spontaneous but deeply moving ways as the reality of her death in an automobile crash in Paris sank in. No stranger to this city after high-profile visits here, Diana, 36, held special appeal to many.

"From the beginning, her life was a fantasy to all of us," Georgia Withers, 46, of Northwest Washington, said outside the embassy, where she brought flowers. "Later she suffered so much heartache that it seemed to bring her to real life, like she was a real person. She did so much for everyone that you wonder, who will do that now?"

At Springfield Mall, where Diana and Prince Charles -- from whom she was divorced last year -- made a visit to promote British trade back in 1985, Eleni Peyser, 32, of Springfield, said: "I always wanted to be like her. I mean, she's in our age group, and she's so down-to-earth. So it wasn't hard to imagine being her. She was just like us."

On the same 1985 visit, the prince and princess attended services at Washington National Cathedral and were hosts of a dinner at the British Embassy. In those days, both places were thronged with people trying to see them. Yesterday, crowds laid flowers.

Even people who were not devoted followers of Diana were surprised at how her death affected them. At the Cafe Deluxe on Wisconsin Avenue NW, lawyer Mark Fitzgibbons, 37, said: "I was watching the news last night, and I found myself getting choked up. She was the epitome of class, and she had held up under so many events in her life. What a difficult standard she had to live up to. This is heart-wrenching."

Many people were angry at the way Diana died, with paparazzi in pursuit of her and her companion, Dodi Fayed, 42, who also was killed, along with the car's driver. A bodyguard was seriously injured.

"The photographers were overly intrusive and aggressive, in this case to the point of death," said Sondra Williams, 32, of Southeast Washington, who brought her 7-year-old daughter, Bianca, to lay a bouquet at the embassy after church.

At the cathedral, the Rev. Nathan D. Baxter said a special prayer for Diana before the 11 a.m. Communion service, saying the American people would miss her as someone who was "genuinely concerned with those who suffer illness, oppression or deprivation."

And Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman, who gave a Labor Day sermon at the cathedral, said that Diana's involvement in numerous charities offered a lesson in the worth of all labor, "not only work that is paid but work that comes when we give our lives to the service of others" as a volunteer.

At the embassy, in the 3100 block of Massachusetts Avenue NW, again and again people wiped tears and hugged friends and family members as they stood or knelt at the steps, which became an instant memorial to Diana. The six steps are about 24 feet across, and by 12:30 p.m. they were covered in flowers, candles, incense, books and playing cards with the queen of hearts on them.

Hilda Kaplis, a white-haired retiree out for a Sunday morning stroll, picked a branch of oak leaves and some dandelions and found herself drawn toward the embassy, arranging the bouquet in her hand.

"It's a humble offering, but I wanted to say a little prayer," Kaplis said. "Diana was such a beautiful, elegant woman, but she also had an inner beauty, a special quality about her. It is so sad."

People left poems and letters at the steps, too, including the Lomas family, of Manassas, who had met Diana while living in England six years ago. She was the only celebrity whom Scott Lomas, 33, his wife, Julie, 34, and their daughter Jenna, 12, had ever met. A friend's videotape of their meeting includes a scene of Diana walking up to the camera and joking, "I hate those things."

"Everyone is born, lives and dies, but few are remembered or make a difference," wrote Scott Lomas, who was stationed in England while in the Army. "You on the other hand have changed the world for all time. You did make a difference and will be sorely missed. I am certain that your death will change the world as did your life."

At 4 p.m., embassy officials opened the doors for two hours to allow mourners to sign an official book of condolences and will reopen the embassy today from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

As testimony to Diana's allure, the people visiting the embassy were a cross section: men, women, black, white, families, singles, disabled, British nannies pushing strollers and a group of four young women from the London area on their first trip to Washington who on Saturday had visited the grave of John F. Kennedy.

"This is equivalent to the death of Kennedy in the grief we feel," said another transplanted British woman, Janice Taylor, 60, of Rockville. "A light has gone out all over the world."

The grieving local residents spanned the generations, from college student Justen Bennett-Maccubbin, of George Washington University, to Nancy Theis, 50, of Northwest Washington.

Bennett-Maccubbin said: "I'm 24 years old, and she is the most significant celebrity death in my lifetime. She's been there since grade school, and I can't imagine her dead. I thought she'd get as old as the queen mother."

Said Theis: "Here was a woman who had all the beauty, all the fame, all the riches anyone could want and then have a tragically unhappy life. I felt sorry for her about the divorce, her children and even her country. I hope she finds true peace and happiness in the arms of God."

Bennett-Maccubbin, a journalism student, added that he was "ashamed" of photographers who chase celebrities for a picture, often published in tabloids. "The incentive for photographs of this couple was just obscene."

Janine Pena, 24, of Northern Ireland, a nanny here, said the crash will tarnish all journalists.

"They went over the boundary. They went too far," she said, cradling her 4-month-old son, Jordan, in her arms at the embassy steps. "They've given a bad name to all media who will stoop that low."

At a Brothers coffeeshop along Wisconsin Avenue NW, a group of five friends spent an hour debating Diana's life and death over coffee. One woman said that the princess had injected freshness and charisma into the fading British monarchy but that she had been abused by both the royal family and the aggressive media that followed her every move.

"Wait a minute. The responsibility is partly ours, too. We keep buying those tabloids and watching `Entertainment Tonight,' " countered Jan Wright, 47, who works at a District health club. "She's just a woman with two legs and arms, just like us. If she had any special charisma, we all gave it to her."

Of all yesterday's reactions to Diana's death, children's often were the most touching. Jenna Lomas, 12, of Manassas, who had met Diana with her parents in 1991, said she will always remember how beautiful and friendly Diana was. "She took the time to shake everyone's hand that she could possibly shake," Jenna said.

Stephanie Myatt and Michelle Sargent, both 14 and from Alexandria, said Diana symbolized every little girl's fantasy of wearing beautiful clothes and attending fabulous parties.

"I always thought she was really lucky to be a princess -- we all want to be princesses," Stephanie said as the two sat outside J.C. Penney at Springfield Mall. "It's hard to believe she's dead. You always think princesses can't be harmed."

Nearly everyone interviewed yesterday teared up when they thought about the fate of Diana's two sons, 15-year-old William and 12-year-old Harry. Sobbing behind sunglasses, and carrying her own 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Sarah, in her arms as she laid flowers at the embassy, Susan O'Connell, 36, of Potomac, asked simply, "What on earth are those boys going to do without their mommy?"

Staff writer Victoria Benning contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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